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African Lions Given Real Protections, Activists Say

WASHINGTON (CN) - Animal rights activists concede the United States has given meaningful protection to African lions.

In response to the dramatic decline of wild lions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, Wednesday. Panthera leo leo, which lives in India and western and central Africa, will be listed as endangered, and Panthera leo melanochaita, located in eastern and southern Africa, will be listed as threatened, the listing states.

Also, to protect lions and other foreign and domestic wildlife from criminal activity, USFWS Director Dan Ashe issued an order to strengthen enforcement of wildlife permitting requirements, according to an USFWS statement.

The order, which aligns with President Obama's National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, is to ensure that violators of wildlife laws are not granted permits for future wildlife-related activities, including the import of sport-hunted trophies, it states.

In the last 20 years, lion populations have declined by 43 percent due to habitat loss, loss of prey base, and retaliatory killing of lions by a growing human population, according to USFWS. Coupled with inadequate financial and other resources for countries to effectively manage protected areas, the impact on lions in the wild has been substantial, the statement continues.

"The lion is one of the planet's most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage," Ashe said. "If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it's up to all of us - not just the people of Africa and India - to take action."

In March 2011, animal protection groups petitioned the USFWS to list the African lion subspecies panthera leo leo as endangered under the ESA. In October 2014, the USFWS proposed listing the lion as threatened with a special exemption for trophy hunting under certain circumstances.

After the highly publicized killing of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe this summer, animal activists called for USFWS to finalize protection for the lion, which came approximately six months later.

Based on newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions, the USFWS says, the agency assessed the status of the entire lion species and changed its finding from threatened to endangered for the final rule.

The new science resolved that the western and central populations of African lion are more genetically related to the Asiatic lion. These lions are now considered the same subspecies, Panthera leo leo (P. l. leo). There are only about 1,400 remaining; 900 in 14 African populations and 523 in India.

In its proposal, the USFWS had said the three main threats facing African lions are habitat loss, loss of prey base, and increased human-lion conflict. Sport-hunting was not found to be a threat.

The 2015 rule, however, includes current management of trophy hunting, along with: "arbitrary establishment of quotas and excessive harvest, lack of age-restriction implementation, fixed quotas, hunting of females, and lack of minimum hunt lengths in some countries."

The lion subspecies listed as threatened in the same action, Panthera leo melanochaita, likely numbers between 17,000-19,000 and is found across southern and eastern Africa, the USFWS said. It determined that this subspecies is less vulnerable and is not currently in danger of extinction. However, although lion numbers in southern Africa are increasing overall, there are populations that are declining due to ongoing threats.

With an endangered listing, imports of Panthera leo leo will generally be prohibited, except in certain cases, such as when it can be found that the import will enhance the survival of the species. To further strengthen conservation measures for the threatened Panthera leo melanochaita, the FWS is also finalizing a special rule to establish a permitting mechanism regulating the import of all Panthera leo melanochaita parts and products, including live animals and sport-hunted trophies, into the United States. The process is to ensure that imported specimens are legally obtained in range countries as part of a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild.

"Although technically lions in the south and east regions of Africa are to be listed as threatened, FWS plans to extend a rule that applies the highest protections to lions regardless of region, thereby giving the equivalent of endangered-level protections to all lions," Jeffrey Flocken, International Fund for Animal Welfare Regional Director, North America, said in a statement.

According to Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation, "It has been a very long four years waiting for this decision, with each year seeing more lions slaughtered by hunters for trophies. This is a victory and we applaud USFWS for agreeing that these animals deserve significant international protection under the ESA: popularly considered one of the world's most important conservation laws. There is now hope for future generations to be able to witness the beauty of the lion in the wild."

"The USFWS listing will significantly impede globetrotting trophy hunters' efforts to collect endangered species for their trophy room," Humane Society International said in a statement.

"This is fantastic news for Panthera leo, whose numbers across Africa have declined precipitously in the last 75 years, and wildlife conservation efforts in general. Nearly 450,000 lions roamed vast ranges of Africa in the mid-century; today, there may be as few as 20,000. It is believed that they have declined 60 percent over the past three decades alone," said Azzedine Downes, International Fund for Animal Welfare president and CEO.

The lion rule was published Dec. 23, 2015, and will go into effect Jan. 22, 2016.

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